In a world where childhood fairy tales are constantly being adapted into darker, grittier versions for film, it was inevitable that someone would eventually do the same for nursery rhymes. Enter The Finger Players’ first show of the season: ITSY The Musical, which does just that, taking some of your favourite nursery rhymes you learnt as a kid and bringing them to life in this grown up musical.
ITSY The Musical takes its title from its antagonist, the Itsy Bitsy Spider from Little Miss Muffet. Plotting to take over the nursery rhyme world with an eight legged army of spiders, writer Chong Tze Chien has given him a bigger backstory, attributing his villainy to being shunned by the other nursery rhyme characters in his youth. Playing him is Sebastian Tan, who chews the scenery every time he steps onstage while retaining an air of menace. On the other side of the war is our unlikely protagonist, a grandfather (a well cast Lim Kay Siu) looking for his grandson (Oliver Chong). He leads a colourful cast of characters making up the resistance team, consisting Humpty Dumpty (Ebi Shankara), Jack and Jill (Tan Shou Chen and Jo Tan), Twinkle (the star from Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, played by Frances Lee), and the three blind mice (Audrey Luo, Ann Lek and Zee Wong).
ITSY is visually impressive, and though Wong Chee Wai’s set is mostly minimalistic, there are deft, interesting touches such as a gigantic spider always looming behind the stage threateningly to really create atmosphere. No Finger Players show is really complete without a touch of their signature puppetry of course, and a show so steeped in fantasy and imagination is ripe for it. Helped by Lim Woan Wen’s precise lighting design, the puppeteers, dressed in black, are cleverly rendered invisible, leaving only their realistic looking puppet spiders in sight, creeping around and terrorizing the inhabitants of the nursery rhyme world. In any fantasy type setting, costumes also play a huge role in bringing out and identifying the characters, and it was clear from Anthony Tan’s colourful and creative costume design that a lot of thought had gone into these characters, and really helped leave a lasting visual impact.
You might be asking how is it that an audience can suspend their imagination enough to believe that a nursery rhyme world has been hiding under our noses all this while, but Chong Tze Chien’s script provides an answer to that. The nursery rhyme world is actually inside the grandfather and grandsons’ subconscious, formed from their childhood memories, and it is when the grandson falls into a coma, it is up to his dementia afflicted grandfather, who happens to be warded in the same hospital but different room, to dive into the world and find him before Itsy takes him to the dark side and erase his wonderful, joyful memories. Not only is his grandson’s life at stake, but should he die, so will all the nursery rhyme characters and their entire world will fade away.
Itsy’s spider army is particularly terrifying, as a single bite from them will cause nursery rhyme characters to begin forgetting their own rhyme origins, which once forgotten will put them in danger. This happens to Jack and Jill, whose rhyme holds the key to defeating the spiders. Tan Shou Chen and Jo Tan possess a very strong onstage chemistry, and it’s evident that they’ve put in a lot of work and practice into their performance, with an impressive, seamless pop and lock dance number choreographed by RAW Dance Moves’ Ricky Sim.
It was evident from Sebastian Tan’s performance as Itsy that he completely embodied the role of villain, and drew out the larger than life aspects of his character, while making his backstory believable. Indulging in the camp while also genuinely scary, Tan made Itsy an entertaining villain to be feared and his vocals were of course, spectacular. Frances Lee was recognizable from the moment she opened her mouth as Twinkle, with her distinct voice and strong enunciation, and she impressed us all with her great rendition of the songs composed for her by Darren Ng. Appearing in a glittery, golden costume, her stage presence was huge and left quite an impression on us. Ebi Shankara’s take on Humpty Dumpty painted him as a multicoloured egg, and his role, while not the biggest, was essential and played well. Finally, Lim Kay Siu and Oliver Chong were very appropriately cast, in terms of their physicality and worked well to bring out the emotional aspects of the script, and reminded us of the surprisingly strong bond that grandchildren share with their grandparents at times.
The Finger Players have been doing small scale productions for a long time, so it’s heartening to see them continue to push their boundaries and take the first steps into making large scale, mass appeal type productions such as ITSY to bring their unique selling point of puppetry to a much bigger audience, suitable for the whole family. Although the performance could have been a bit tighter, it was opening night after all, and will definitely get stronger with each consecutive performance.
ITSY is the nursery rhyme musical you never knew you wanted as an adult, and showcases the Finger Players at the top of their creativity and ingenuity, with a relatable, human story at the heart of its spectacular fantasy setting, and reminding us to cherish the moments we have with our loved ones. Another job well done by The Finger Players and a promising start to their 2017 season.
Performance attended on 25/3/17.
Itsy The Musical plays at Victoria Theatre till 2 April. Tickets available from SISTIC
Photo Credit: Tuckys Photography